Best Practices in Husbandry and Handling

Written by Laura Monaco Torelli

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. I’ll add that video is worth a million. As professional trainers, we offer our services in a time where modern technology can be our best friend. A baseline video here, a quick video of us working with our client and their animal there, send the video right away to the client as a supportive tutorial for their library, et voilà! How wonderful is that?

When Marjie Alonso generously approached me to take on the exciting role of animal husbandry content editor, I literally jumped at the chance to collaborate with my like-minded and talented colleagues in the IAABC team.

My professional animal care and training background began with learning from exotic animals. Our daily training sessions included husbandry care, because husbandry is such a vital part of looking after the wellbeing of exotics. So, carrying this philosophy to everyday interactions with pet owners is an easy and enjoyable transition for me.

Thanks for joining me and the IAABC team while we do our best to showcase the excellent work being done out there!

In this first series of videos, I’ll be focusing on techniques to help dogs and cats cooperate in their veterinary care. This includes training to make medical procedures—even uncomfortable ones like suture removal—possible with no restraint or sedation, and conditioning cats to take pills. Restraint is a critical part of exceptional animal care, but more on that topic coming in later videos! With just a couple of basic tricks and a strong history of positive reinforcement, dogs and cats can become willing participants in their own care, and our clients can be spared stressful interactions with their beloved companions.

Video 1: Training your pet to take medication

Dr. Colleen Koch provides an excellent video tutorial that helps teach creative strategies when administering medication to domestic cats. She uses progressive approximations of the desired behavior—taking a pill from a pill popper—to shape the cat whilst keeping the interaction enjoyable.

(Video courtesy of Colleen S. Koch, DVM, ACVB Behavior Resident, Mizzou Animal Behavior Clinic, University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine)

One approximation that I observed to be especially beneficial is allowing the cat to lick the reinforcer off the pill popper. The final goal behavior is to gulp the medication down while it is encased in the wet food, which eventually occurs. Her helpful video and narrative of the shaping process provides a real-world look into the challenges that accompany medicating cats.

Video  2: Chin rest for veterinary and grooming care

Scotti Harvey from Why Runamuck Animal Training and Behavior showcases the many benefits of teaching this fun behavior.

The canine chin rest provides the opportunity for the puppy or dog to choose to engage. Offering the chin rest is the green light to advance in additional, small approximations. The dog lifting his head, shifting his body backward, or walking away are our cues as the handler that we should stop the procedure. Talk about clear two-way communication! Can you count how many husbandry behaviors she included in this short video?

When I reached out to my colleagues for chin rest videos, Scotti immediately sent over the current goals she is working on with a client’s dog. The manner in which she slowly introduced the towel as the target for the chin rest, then each prop (scissors, muzzle, hands for touching the ear and head) set the tone for their success.  It is also important that we take quick breaks, cue simple, fluent behaviors, and plan short sessions while building on duration in the husbandry sequence. Excellent teamwork!

Video 3: Chin rest for suture removal

This video highlights the collaboration with our veterinary team at Medical District Veterinary Clinic at Illinois (and extension teaching location of University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine). I have been teaching Santino, my Rhodesian ridgeback, many husbandry behaviors since he was a puppy. So when he needed to have a small bump removed from his back, we took it as a teaching opportunity to enhance and advance on our chin rest behavior. Dr. Drew Sullivan agreed to remove three sutures from Santino’s back while he offered a chin rest behavior.

What built the momentum for our team success? We studied for the test before taking the exam live!

  • We practiced a suture removal mockup procedure at home.
  • I integrated a second person into these quick sessions to play the role of the veterinarian.
  • We took frequent breaks with the chin rest approximations to cue simple, fluent behaviors like play bows, spins, and hand targets.
  • Clear communication: Dr. Sullivan knew that I would click after each suture removal and then treat Santino. The click serves two purposes: to reinforce Santino and to cue Dr. Sullivan to stop the procedure.
  • No surprises: the introduction of a second person means the animal should see them first! If Dr. Sullivan came up from behind, it would only be natural to expect Santino to back out of his chin rest position to assess his environment and make sure he’s still comfortable.
  • Treat placement: I would toss the treat away from Santino to help him adjust his body in a comfortable manner. It is important for Santino to have a comfortable distribution of his body weight, which the chin rest allows.
  • I trained for distractions, which meant Santino could keep offering his chin rest amidst the background noise of construction in the next room.
  • I reinforced Santino with high value treats!

It is an exciting time to be a professional trainer, for both the animals and for our clients. When pet owners see what we can achieve, we then represent the many possibilities that can be accomplished with positive care, management, training and collaboration.